JUDY'S THOUGHTS/OBSERVATIONS ON CUBA - '09
Cuban Roads: A main highway that looks like a 2 lane country road in need of repair. A superhighway is called an autopista and is a 4 lane divided highway with no shoulders and in slightly better condition than a highway. The off ramp our bus took from the autopista on our way to Santiago de Cuba was a combined dirt/paved narrow road through a field. In the cities/towns, main roads are paved with lots of rough spots, holes, etc. Side streets in a town are often dirt which in the rainy season means MUD! A service road by the side of a highway is just a mud and stone trail for people, horses and oxen. In the old parts of cities, the streets are often cobblestone.
Homes in the country: Generally are very neat with no junk piled outside. The yards are raked hard packed dirt with banana trees and a few flowers for colour. The houses are usually two rooms and made of cement blocks. If the owners are lucky, they can afford paint to keep them looking good from the outside. The big secret is no matter how bad places look from the outside, they are extremely neat and clean on the inside. The yards are usually fenced in to keep the chickens and animals from roaming. Fences are made of cactus or just sticks/branches stuck in the ground and wired together. Most homes in the country have no running water, just hand pumps in the yard over a well. Some of their yards remind me of forts we used to build when we were young, making use of the natural things in the environment to help create our own space.
City Homes: Buildings in cities such as Havana are owned by the government on the outside and the occupants on the inside, so many places look dirty and uncared for on the surface but once inside, it is clean and comfortable. Crumbling cement work abounds on balconies which are sometimes propped up with pine poles. In several cities, including Havana, we saw the front facings of buildings held in place by scaffolding that extended into the street for support. The danger areas were not blocked off to traffic and people paid no heed as they walked under scaffolding close to the unstable architecture. Wiring to homes and in homes is very primitive - an accident waiting to happen.
City Noises: Because the people in the cities and towns live so close together they become immune to the sounds around them. To the tourist, earplugs are the only alternative! Between 7 and 7:30 every morning it seems that everybody leaves their house and heads to work. The bread man comes by in his cart sounding a shrill whistle to rouse his clients - remember when the bread man used to deliver your bread? Earlier in the morning and without care for sleeping humans, the roosters sound their "cock-a-doodle-doos", and not just at 6 a.m! The 7 am. noises include the shrill voices of women greeting each other, crying babies, blaring televisions, kids on their way to school, slamming doors, truck taxis roaring up the narrow streets and dogs barking. We never needed an alarm clock to wake us up! People in Cuba don't know how to whisper, nor do they seem to care to. If they are up, everyone else should be too!
Casa Particulares: For anyone traveling in Cuba we would highly recommend staying at casa particulares. These are Cuban homes that are licensed to accommodate tourists. They must comply with strict regulations and are frequently inspected by the government. The casas are identified by a blue, single lettered sign as seen above Judy's head in the picture. Every casa that we stayed at throughout our many trips inland was friendly, clean and a welcome cultural experience. We paid $15, $20 or $25 a night to stay in a casa. The price usually depended on the location with Baracoa being our least expensive. Staying at a typical casa particulares is like staying in a house with many other families - the ambient noise is amazing, so we always had ear plugs handy! If you have bikes, get a ground floor casa - everyone takes their bikes inside their homes - that is the best way to ensure their security.
Street Food: This is food that can be bought from vendors in the streets. Common items for sale include small cheese pizzas, rice and beans, pork and ham sandwiches, cups of spaghetti with a little bit of tomato sauce and ice cream cones. Many Cubans eat street food for two of three meals in a day. Items are priced in national pesos (25 national pesos to a convertible tourist peso). In American dollars, ice cream costs about 5 cents, pizza - 25 cents, sandwiches - 25 cents, rice and beans about 50 cents.
Cuban Dancing/Walking: The rhythm is in their bones! Girls and guys can move their hips in ways that we can only dream of. It looks like a fertility rite! Waitresses, old women in the streets and young schoolgirls all gyrate to the Cuban rap beat wherever a band can be found. Cuban girls seem to have a distinctive walk or should we say "slink". The trick is to thrust your hips forward of your body, about two inches, then let your body undulate after your hips adding a little sideways hip flip!
Cell Phones: In 2007, Cubans were not allowed to have Cuban cell phones. In order for a Cuban to have one, they had to get a foreign resident to purchase the phone and set up the phone contract and the minutes for them. In 2008 all that changed. It is now just the opposite. Cubans can have cell phones but the foreign residents cannot. Now all the foreign residents have to get Cubans to purchase their phones and set up a contract and phone minutes. When we answer the phone we say "hello". When a Cuban answers their phone they say "diga mi" which literally translated means "speak to me".
Observations on Smoking: In the big cities it seems that most people smoke. The buses and trucks give off a lot of polluted gases so, combined with smoking, that is not good at all for the lungs. The result is that Cubans have the highest rate of lung cancer in the world. Even many of the long stay tourists and the foreign residents smoke. But in the town of Baracoa, we hardly saw anyone smoke and the air was clear of pollution. Perhaps they have better ways to spend their money than on cigarettes. Cigarettes are a rationed item (i.e they can buy them cheaply in the ration store) and Cubans are not discouraged from buying them. Non-smokers just turn around and sell them for a profit.
Doing Laundry: In the casa particulares there were small washing machines used for laundry. In the country, that luxury could not be afforded so laundry is done in pails, like we do it on the boat, or in rivers (like we saw often on our trip through the mountains to Baracoa). To dry the clothes they spread them out on the rocks or on a cactus hedge or on a clothes line suspended under a window, across a balcony, etc.
Who do you think is employing the most primitive method of washing clothes?
Dogs: There are many exotic breeds in Cuba that are kept as family pets. The Chihuahua is popular, as is the Dachshund. The street dogs are mostly very diseased looking and thin. They are gradually disappearing as the government programs are implemented to get rid of them - by poison and lately by shelters.
Garbage: There is no moral need not to litter in Cuba. Once you are finished with a piece of paper that is used to hold your street pizza, you drop it. We don't, but they seem to not care about litter in the streets. After all there are street cleaners that are constantly at work cleaning the streets.
Field Plowing: Fields are plowed by two oxen pulling a plough under the reins of a farmer. The weeds and unwanted detritus are picked up by hand and loaded into carts for discard. The soil is extremely rich and in many places has a red or a black hue.
A team of oxen are worth their weight in gold, whether used in the field or to drag a load through the street
Washrooms: Most public bathrooms in bus stations and in restaurants are accessed at a price - 20 centavos, in national money - one cent US. Sometimes that will buy you a piece of toilet paper, sometimes it will pay an attendant to pour a bucket of water down the toilet every 2 or 3 patrons. Sometimes it is just added to the coffers to pay the attendant that must clean the washrooms. Never flush paper down a toilet in Cuba. There is a basket provided beside each bowl to deposit paper. There are normally no seats on the toilets. Mostly, the men's bathrooms smell worse than the women's - the reek of urine is not pleasant! There is usually only water to wash hands afterwards - no soap, no towels or dryers. Always take in your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer. There are some washrooms that are excellent but after extensively touring Cuba, we could count them on the fingers of one hand.
Mowing the Lawn: The implement of choice to cut grass is the machete. The only place we saw a lawn mower being used was in the touristy area of Varadero. In the country, the machete is used to cut everything - from grass and bushes to tree branches.
Buses: Except in Varadero and Havana (the main tourist areas) the buses are very old, dirty and in desperate need of replacement. In the cities and towns outside of the main tourist areas, bus transportation is often by truck-bus, with side benches and standing room only! Horse drawn carts are also used by the Cubans as a form of bus travel within cities and surrounding areas. Cuban buses/truck buses are no place to be if you have claustrophobia! When traveling anywhere by bus, if for more than 3 hours, take ear plugs - if you want to sleep. The buses, although looking newer, have all kinds of lose fitting things that make quite a racket when on a bumpy road. Long distance buses are air conditioned to the point of being freezing! Since many of the ac vents are broken and cannot be closed it is best to prepare for the worst. Wear long, warm, comfortable pants and long sleeved tops with a hooded sweatshirt. The hoodie will keep the cold air off your neck and keep your hair from the usually dirty top covers on the bus seats. Try not to drink anything before leaving so that you won't need to use the bus bathroom - if it is accessible. Our record is a 15 hour bus ride with a locked bathroom! The five minute stops at the bus stations along the way were a necessity! If possible take an MP3 player to block out the noise from the video systems which play terrible third rate movies with lots of violence and swearing.
The tourist buses themselves are quite personalized to each driver, with trinkets hanging from the rear view mirror, special comfortable seat blankets and space to store various items picked up during the trip. The drivers seem to have developed contacts along their route. Even though the bus has only six scheduled stops, twice that number are common. Reasons for unscheduled stops can vary: picking oranges by the roadside, pick up or drop off local Cubans, brief visit with family, or picking up "contraband" at a house. The latter most often occurs in the middle of the night during an overnight trip.
Plastic Grocery Bags: Take lots of them with you when you head to Cuba. While in Cuba, wash (if necessary) and reuse all the bags that you can. They are difficult to get in Cuba and indeed, some people charge you for them. Our lifelines often sport three or four bags drying in the sun and wind. They are great for vegetables you buy in the agropequario (produce market) - especially the root vegetables that still have a lot of dirt on them!
Judy holds tight to her precious grocery bag!
Expressions to remember: There are things that you see and hear that just stick in your brain and pop out at various appropriate times. The first one is "No pase, roto". The exact meaning is "do not enter, broken". For us it has become a silly expression with no meaning that comes out just like a comment on life.
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